Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Death Wish by Gwee Li Sui


I got to know about Gwee Li Sui through his funny poems, such as The Other Merlion and Friends and the more recent Haikuku. But Death Wish is a whole different ballgame, in a league of its own.

At the book launch last week, Gwee revealed that this book has been 20 years in the making and the genesis of it was at the start of his academic career, when he realised his voice was fracturing. The first section, titled The Professor, gives us an insight into how he realised academia was not what it was made out to be. It feels not so much angst-filled, as someone frustrated with the state of how things are, yet powerless to enact change. The following is a glimpse of the fascinating first section:


The second section, The Lovers, was a result of seeing couples who were at one time in love, getting divorced. It is a tough situation to be friends with both parties yet unable to see them together as an item like they once were. Gwee told us at the book launch that the section, like the rest of the book, is simultaneously about him, and yet not about him. Although he draws on the lives of his friends, he also dug deep into himself and the relationship he'd once experienced and poured it onto the pages. To quote Alex Vause from Orange is the New Black, "Love is Pain" basically summarises this section.

Next comes The Philosopher, which is one of my favourite sections because I had to read, and then reread the poems to try to discern the meaning behind them. My favourite was "What I mean when I say 'I'":


I think this section really lives up to its name as it made me slow down and contemplate not only the poems themselves but beyond them.

Then came fourth section, The Solider. The inspiration for it was the period after September 11, 2001, with the opening poem bringing the said incident into raw focus. Gwee mentioned that it was strange that the people in Singapore seemed to be unaffected by the war on terrorism and that was brought to bear in the poem, "Dream Sequence" which can also describe the nonchalance of Singaporeans even today.

The Preacher is the next section that follows which dealt with how the Singaporean landscape of the Christian faith that he holds dear to had changed dramatically after a few years abroad. Rich Jesus and Meeting God are two pieces that really impacted me and is an interesting intersection between faith and poetry (having only read stuff from John Donne and Anne Lee Tsu Pheng from this genre before).



Finally, the book ends with The Golden Child, which was the most interesting to me as it was more transparent, with poems about the AWARE Saga in 2009 and the NLB Saga in 2014. For Singaporeans, those were significant events and I really liked those two pieces.

All in all, I'd say this is a rather good book of poetry which requires a little bit of effort to unpack. I hope this review will aid you in the reading of the book, having given the reader some context into how the book came to be.

If I had but one criticism, it would (once again), be the rather "creepy cover" featured (as commented by most of my friends). I did ask the author about it who said that it highlighted the psychological aspect of the book and the publisher also remarked that he found it a very arresting image. I'd have preferred something less disturbing. But to each his own. And this is another excellent lesson on how we should not judge a book by its cover.

Well, if you're interested, you can get your copy from Kinokuniya or Popular Bookstore today.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 

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